Flu cases spike in Alaska

CDC map of flu in the US.

The Center for Disease Control is reporting widespread flu in 47 states, including Alaska.

The influenza virus has been active in the state since early November.

“It seems like the flu virus has hit much earlier this year,” says Brian Yablon.

He’s a medical epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Yablon says flu cases don’t normally pick up until late December or early January.

“Really conditions everywhere are ripe for the spread of flu. This is the season in terms of the winter weather in terms of people sharing tighter quarters in the winter and breathing the same air and getting other illnesses and spreading cough and cold symptoms.”

But he says tracking the flu virus is tricky.

“We’re more likely to see flu tests done when someone has a severe illness or when providers are just really looking for it and that does make it challenging to compare flu rates between other states or within part s of this state.”

The rate of influenza infection is up across most of Alaska.

Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Infection Prevention Coordinator has seen an increase in the number of influenza cases in recent weeks.

Kim Vermedal says more cases of Influenza A and B are being seen in the hospital emergency room, and there’ve even been some hospital admissions. She says this year’s flu shot covers both flu strains.

She says a few weeks ago about 10 patients per week were coming to the hospital with flu-like illnesses, “and now we’re hitting the mid-30s, low 40s (a week), and these are people that are actually sick enough to come to the hospital.”

Vermedal says it’s not too late to get a flu shot.

“It’s probably going to run a couple more months, and who knows, we could have a second wave later in the season,” she says.

She says the flu is easily transmitted, so stay home if you’re sick. Always cover your cough, avid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Vermedal says hand washing is critical in preventing the spread of flu germs.

In the Interior region, many people contracted the illness early on in November. According to one doctor, the emergency room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital is relatively quiet. But the Mat-Su valley and Southwest Alaska are seeing higher than normal influenza infection rates.

Nancy Davidian is a nurse at the public health center in Fairbanks. She leads a case management team that focuses on communicable diseases. She recommends everyone get a flu shot this year.

“Since it’s been in the national news, people have been calling in more and coming in more. We do know that the vaccine is available from other providers and amongst other pharmacies.”

Even out on the Aleutian chain, the health clinic in Unalaska reports an increase in demand for flu shots. Some states are reporting a shortage of the vaccine, but health officials in Alaska say there’s still plenty to go around in the far north.

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